I wish you a healthy, peaceful, musical and happy New Year!
A new year has started, with new challenges and new resolutions. Last year, my good resolutions were to follow 12 zen rules and apply them to shakuhachi. I kept this in mind throughout the year, and started gradually a more consistent practice of meditation. This leads me to my good resolution of this year: be a better person. I believe that everyone can contribute to make this world better starting with oneself, and I’m trying to improve my share. I have been learning a lot since I’m meditating on a daily basis and it has been deepening my shakuhachi practice. Although I’m still a beginner, I’d like to share with you how meditation helps me to become a better shakuhachi player.
Shakuhachi & Meditation
There is a lot to say about this topic, and I discovered recently that it could even lead to quite some heated discussions. So first of all, I’d like to say that I’m not an expert, nor a researcher, I even don’t speak Japanese, and the more I read about it, the less I know about what really happened during the Edo-period at the time of the Fuke-sect and how the shakuhachi players of that time were using shakuhachi to meditate. So all I’m writing here is only my own personal experience and perception and shouldn’t be taken as “truth”.
Some years ago, I performed a couple of solo meditation concerts for meditation practitioners. I had planned to play traditional honkyokus in the most meditative way I could honestly do in a performance setting. For various reasons, I was not really happy with the outcome. There had been some misunderstandings in the organisation of those concerts, which I could afterwards learn from: for my first concert, I was invited to play as an invisible guest for an invisible audience (“is there really an audience somewhere?”) and it turned out I was closely being filmed while playing (“relax and forget the camera, you’re supposed to be meditating”), while at the same time trying to protect my flute from rain drops falling from the trees and my music notation from the wind blowing everything away (“I was not supposed to play outside!”), and stay focus on the music despite all this (“do your best, the birds and the trees are listening!”). Eventually I left the place with this unanswered question: “what was the point of this concert?”… The second one was better organised, but there was still something bothering me I couldn’t really define. Another experience, later, was to accompany a silent meditation session during a sesshin, and I found myself doubting whether my music was adding something to the silence or just disturbing it. Another unanswered question, as I never got any feedback from this concert either.
The first question I asked myself at that time was whether you can meditate while playing. And if so, how should you be supposed to do that? Do you have to accept equally all that is coming from your flute and turn off you musical judgement? Is playing honkyoku enough to say you are actually meditating? Is the goal of honkyoku music or meditation? Are music and meditation even antagonistic? (I mean by this, do you have to choose between playing in a “meditative way” or playing in a “musical way”, are they two different things?). The only answer I came up with was, in order to be able to answer these questions, that I first had to practice consistently meditation, to know what it is we’re talking about here. Meditation, like zen, are such popular terms at the moment that you see the most unexpected things called “zen”… (when I was younger, a very popular term was “surrealist” which was applied to almost everything but true surrealism…)
I’m still on my way and don’t have any ready-made answers to these questions. There are so many different schools of meditation as well as shakuhachi schools and styles that I don’t believe there could be only one answer. So I’m just listing here some aspects of meditation which help me with shakuhachi, and shakuhachi with meditation. I’m sure I’ll forget things, so this list is by far not exhaustive.
Meditation & shakuhachi
- Meditation is being present in the moment. Being present in every little moment feels great for practicing as well as for performing. Be present in each tone, each mouvement, each breath, each silence, and the music will still resonate in you long after you’re finished.
- Meditation trains awareness and allows me to know myself better. Applying the same full attention while practicing shakuhachi helps me to improve a lot on details I wasn’t enough aware of. By a mindful observation of myself / my flute, I can feel faster why it sometimes works and other times not as good, and fix it. Because there is no magic or chance involved there. What comes out of your flute is what you blow in yourself.
- Meditation allows you to take distance from your emotions, thoughts, negative self-talk, etc. It teaches you to feel safe in any situation. It’s definitively a great skill when you perform. For example, I don’t get distracted anymore by the audience, don’t feel under pressure to perform and I’m not disturbed if something goes differently than expected. I don’t keep record if mistakes occur, don’t beat myself up and stay more easily in the present moment.
- Meditation taught me the true meaning of acceptance. Acceptance is a powerful tool to grow. It allows to see the reality without fooling yourself. From there, you can work on issues and find solutions.
- Meditation helps me to express myself with confidence and without hiding behind technical skills. I’m convinced that technical virtuosity should be only used in a musical purpose and not to show off or hide poor musicality. Meditation gives more self confidence to play what I know I can do, to embrace challenges and don’t be afraid to fail.
- Meditation brings lightness in my play, light, joy and gratitude.
“If you don’t have time to meditate, just play Choshi.” Shimura Zempo
- Shakuhachi has incredible beautiful tones which can be in themselves meditation objects. Playing one tone which contains them all…
- Shakuhachi has an unique and beautiful repertoire of honkyoku that were composed for spiritual practice. Some titles are already inspiring (for example: Kyorei, Empty Bell)
- Playing shakuhachi teaches you breathing techniques and body awareness, it’s very helpful for meditation.
- Playing shakuhachi trains you to listen to the silence and to yourself.
- Playing shakuhachi helps you to deal with patience, frustration, perseverance, and to develop gratitude.
- While playing shakuhachi, you can share your meditative inner state and the beautiful honkyoku music with people listening to you. You can pass on peace and inspiration. This is goal my when I perform shakuhachi meditation concerts, play for people with dementia, or just for my family and friends.
Last September, I performed again a solo shakuhachi meditation concert in a zen temple, and this time it went very well. I also performed “standard” concerts during the summer and it went the same way. The same inner way I mean. The concentration I use while playing shakuhachi is the same as during meditation, there is no distinction. For me, honkyoku is music and meditation. Being in the present moment is the key. The present is not rigid, it’s always changing – follow the flow, don’t stay behind, go with the flow, nail the high tones, play the meri notes with precision, everything will be fine, go until the end of your breath, enjoy the silence, inhale, blow, and enjoy the music you play…
I’d love to know about your own experience about shakuhachi – or other music instruments – and meditation. Please write your comments below.